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Aditi Narayani Paswan writes: Amrit Kaal, led by women

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech was transformative. It did not just trace a historical journey but outlined how the unsung warriors of pre-independence Bharat contributed to the nation. He also underlined the role of women — veeranganas — in our freedom movement. The initiative highlighting the brave women of our freedom struggle, under the broader celebration of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, will mark a turning point in Indian feminist history writing from an Indic perspective. The construction of the “new India” PM Modi has envisaged since taking office is a synthesis of two major elements — the principles, ideas and values of our national ethos and freedom movement; and new ideas and policies to face new and emerging challenges.

Explained | Women heroes of India’s freedom struggle, mentioned by PM in his I-Day speech

The veeranganas are a potent symbol of nationalism and patriotism. They can overturn oppressive attitudes towards women in society. Their role and celebration in popular culture also refutes the colonial allegations about the suppression of women throughout Indian history. But it is essential to discover, rewrite and reinterpret the role and representation of these heroic women in the liberation of the motherland. Such rewriting and reinterpretation might also provide a method to deal with the reactionary and androcentric approach of society.

The historical memories of courage and sacrifice are preserved in folktales, songs and regional lore. They reveal the less-celebrated character of Indian society, in which women’s power was acknowledged. The PM paid tribute not only to celebrated women but also to unsung veeranganas. Rani Lakshmi Bai, the first woman warrior of the revolt of 1857, is known to every young woman in India. Begum Hazrat Mahal took to the battlefields along with Lakshmi Bai in 1857 and till her last breath in 1879, fought the British. Remembered as the “Agni of India”, Durgawati Devi was an armed revolutionary and active member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and a close associate of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. There is also Jhalkari Bai, whose tales of bravery have travelled far and wide. Her story presents a social reality where even a Dalit woman had acquired social and cultural significance. Like Jhalkari Bai, Uda Devi also belonged to the Dalit community from Awadh, a significant centre during the revolt of 1857. She is said to have formed a women’s battalion, comprising mostly Dalit women, popularly known as “veerangana” or “warrior women”. The story of Asha Devi Gurjari follows a similar trajectory — a Dalit, she led women in a bid to restore the political self-respect of the motherland. These stories of the valour of veeranganas were not limited to any time or area. Rather, they are of a piece with the national consciousness of the times.

After the holistic account of the veeranganas, the PM emphasised “nari shakti”, which can be seen in various fields such as law, governance, science, technology, bureaucracy, academics, and politics. He restated the manifold contribution of women in both public and private spaces. But he also highlighted that there is much to be done to “provide opportunities and facilities to our daughters” in order to take the nation to new heights. He further pointed out that “if the considerable efforts of our nari shakti are added to fulfil the dreams in the Amrit Kaal, then it will take less hard work and our time limit will also be reduced. Our dreams will be more intense, vivacious and resplendent.”

But before making the attempts the PM outlined, it is important to assert a feeling of oneness or unity, the foundation for which must be laid in the homes of the common people. Every household must treat its sons and daughters equally. Such a household, particularly in the joint family system, is — as the PM said — our cultural heritage. It is this culture that is “cultivated by the daughter and sisters” and holds within it “Nar” and “Narayani”. He underlined the rich cultural values of our civilisation, which assert equality through the lens of “divinity” in both male and female forms.

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PM Modi’s dynamic and inclusive speech shows that he is not merely a political leader but also a social reformer. He believes not only in transforming society through policies but also in engaging in constructive dialogue. His exhortation that we decolonise our consciousness will provide the spaces, opportunities and platforms for women to engage in nation-building. The rediscovery of unsung warriors and icons is a step in this direction.

At the age of 75, India envisions gender equality and empowerment. This year’s Independence Day speech marked the creation of a gender-inclusive nation, based on the liberal ethos found in our cultural-civilisational values and new ideas for a post-modern world. Such a society will achieve the dreams of all its members, the entire nation, by channelling to a greater degree the potential of women.

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The writer is assistant professor, Maitreyi College and founder of DAPSA (Dalit Adivasi Professors and Scholars Association)

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